Travel Journal, a month wandering China
To contextualize, in September 2021, I left Bucharest, Romania to begin my journey as a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University in China. Throughout the trials and tribulations of arriving in Beijing — including a month-long quarantine — I started documenting some of the unique ways I was experiencing adjusting to my new home.
This first post contains excerpts from my Travel Journal over Chunjie 春节(Chinese New Year) break. Given that Chinese universities don’t celebrate Christmas or New Year, all schools have their ‘winter’ break attached to the Chinese New Year celebrations in February. During the 4 weeks of break, I took a risk and decided to backpack across the country, on a budget.
Chapter 1: Yunnan Province
Friday, January 21st
Got on a 6AM flight from Beijing to Kunming, Yunnan with Tye and Luke with the plan to visit the city and sleep at Pushe Hotel. I think most surprising was seeing the nature in the city — it reminded me of tropical weather and the posters about COP15 Biodiversity Conference all over the city.
We had the best time surfing though the streets on Alipay scooters (2.5kuai ~$0.4 for 30 minutes) and visited the Yuantong temple, the Green Park and the Nanping Pedestrian Street filled with snacks where we ate some delicious $0.5 oysters. For dinner we stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where a family was cooking for their kids and we asked them to prepare 3 of their favorite dishes for us. The result? some of the best beef noodle soup I had all trip.
Saturday, January 22nd
Woke up early to hit up the Kunming wet market before getting on a gorgeous 2.5 hour train to Dali, Yunnan. While at Zhuanxin Wet Market, we decided to have an ENTIRE duck (30kuai ~ $8 total) for breakfast between the 3 of us and used our basic Mandarin skills to acquire other food. When we reached Dali, we joined a group of friends and scholars at Rongju Dali Yinboquan Hotel and went straight for Lena’s birthday dinner in the old town. I didn’t realize we would be at ~2,000m altitude in the ancient city, surrounded by some of the most breathtaking mountain views.
Sunday, January 23rd
Woke up to a sunny Dali morning overseeing the Cang Mountains (Cangshan) and decided to embark on a bike trip to Xizhou Village (~25km away, each way) with Luke, Ryan and Tye. We rented bikes for the day for 40kuai (~$5) and went around Erhai lake until we reached the village. There, we went to try out Yunnan speciality coffee (light, medium and dark roasts) at a local shop and got lunch recommendations from a local. ‘Bai’ traditional cuisine was not my favorite — pork and more pork, mostly raw skin (similar to the Romanian ‘sorici’), but nevertheless another exciting culinary experience. While at lunch, we met a 12 year old boy visiting family in the village that was initially shy but eventually joined our table and practiced his English with us. He shared that he dreams of someday going to Cambridge University and wants to travel to the United States to visit New York City.
Monday, January 24th (sweet 23!)
Woke up for an early breakfast in the ancient city and enjoyed some delicious baozi (buns) from a street vendor. Met the group for our covid-19 PCR test at the local hospital and decided to go for a unique lunch at a monastery close to the old city. For 20kuai (~$3), we had a delicious vegetarian meal prepared by the female monks and spend the afternoon overlooking the rain and forest in Dali. In the evening, my friend Paulina organized a beautiful dinner for me at a local farm-to-table restaurant. The night led us to a local brewery where we celebrated around a fire-pit until the early hours of the morning, making friends with locals (such as Jim, a Tibetan tour guide).
Tuesday, January 25th
Early in the morning we took a car from Dali to Lijiang (~2h) and arrived in the town featuring the traditional rooftops and crowded houses where a lot of famous Kung-Fu movies have been shot. We took a walk around the rebuilt ancient city and stopped for a panorama view from Lion Hill and the Wangu Tower. Spent the rest of the day catching up on work in a futuristic cafe in the old town and slept at Honghua Hotel.
Wednesday, January 26th
This was the first day of break we took, spending the day taking it slow in Lijiang, meeting with the larger group coming from Hainan Island in preparation for the challenging hike we had arranged for the next day. We once again got covid-19 tested at a local hospital for ~35yuan (~$5) and spent another night at Honghua Hotel.
Thursday, January 27th
Bright and early we packed our backpacks and took a private bus from Lijiang to the small town of Qiaotao from where we started our ascent on the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. The hike’s name comes from a legend that portrays a hunter chasing a tiger through the gorge many years ago. When it reached the narrowest point, against all odds, the tiger leapt across the Jinsha River, managing to escape the furious hunter.
We took a wrong turn right at the beginning of the hike, so, by the time we were ready to begin the hike, it was about 1pm. The trail spared no one, starting with quite a steep ascent. I found the first section to be the toughest of the entire trek. Around 3pm, all 12 of us had a lovely lunch at Naxi Family Guesthouse, served by a traditional Naxi family. Naxi is an ethnic minority that can only be found in this particular area, near the base of the Himalaya.
After lunch, we continued onto the infamous 28 Bends — steep, climbing switchbacks that seemed to go on forever. The temperature dropped suddently when we reached the highest point of the hike ~2,700m and stopped for group photos. Exhausted, we reached Tea and Horse Guesthouse around 6pm. By far, the guesthouse with the best views, situated at 2,300m, we had a copious homecooked dinner and spent the night warmed by the electric blankets there.
Friday, January 28th
We started the second day of the hike early and had a quick breakfast at the Guesthouse before setting off. The second part of the Upper Gorge trail was posibly my favorite part of the entire trip — fairly flat, narrow pathway in between the mountain and the gorge. The capricious weather didn’t stop us from enjoying 5 hours of trail. We eventually descended and stopped at Tina’s for a quick lunch before taking the private bus to our next destination: Shangri-La. First thing we did when we got there was get COVID-19 tested so that we could spend the night at Slow Life Inn, at ~3,450 m (11,300 feet) close to the border with Tibet in this mythical town.
Saturday, January 29th
Shangri-La is a fascinating place renamed on 17 December 2001 after the fictional land of Shangri-La in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, in an effort to promote tourism in the area. It’s also one of the closest places you can visit and see Tibetan culture without actually crossing the border into Tibet. Aside from visiting the old rebuilt town, we went to see the Songzanlin Monastery. Songzanlin Monastery, or known as “Little Potala” or Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is a traditional Lama monastery about 5 kilometres away from the Shangri-La old town. It was built in 1679 and has been reconstructed several times and is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Today, Songzanlin is the home for more or less 700 monks and Lamas for their monastic lives.
We walked inside the main complex, where many historical Buddhist events are well-illustrated by statues and the colourful murals. I was stunned by the richness and detail of the paintings as well as by the number of women dressed in traditional tibetan clothing taking photos in this sacred place. We spent the night at Slow Life Inn again, getting some well-deserved rest before a full day of travel.
Sunday, January 30th
Sunday was a hectic day of travel- first by car from Shangri-La to Lijiang where we picked up our luggage and then by flight to Chengdu in Sichuan Province. We arrived after midnight and struggled to get a cab from the airport to the hotel. Little did we know that the hotel we would have to deal with a mishap. The place we initially booked was nothing like the pictures, but had mold and dirty rooms. So, around 1am, our group of 9 booked rooms at Jianguo Puyin Hotel, where we ended up spending the next few days.
Chapter 2: Sichuan Province & Chongqing
Monday, January 31st — ancient poetry
After the tumultuos night, we had a slow start to exploring Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After the morning covid-19 test at the hospital, we took the subway across the city to Du Fu Thatched Cottage, a park and museum in honour of the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, often introduced to Western readers as “the Chinese Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Béranger, Hugo or Baudelaire”. For New Year’s eve, we gathered together for a local hot-pot dinner, but avoided the traditionally spicy option that Sichuan is well-known for. After dinner, we walked around the center of the city in search for fireworks and celebrations, but Chengdu seemed asleep or, more likely, everyone was at home celebrating Spring Festival with their family, as per tradition.
Tuesday, February 1st — Chunjie 春节 (Spring Festival)
We started the day with a visit to the famous Jingli Pedestrian Street that was roaming with people at 10am. Overwhelmed by the abundance of street food and people frantically running from one stall to the other, we strolled around and tried a few novel snacks including Clear Jelly Noodles in Red Chili Sauce (凉粉 liángfěn). Luke and Serge, the Brits in our travel group, took us to Scotts for a fish & chips lunch. Before heading for a night out in Chengdu, I experienced the hotel’s robot bringing me the food I ordered for dinner. He even rang the doorbell and asked me to gently pick up the delivery.
Our first night out in Chengdu’s Lan Kwai Fong party street strated with live music and drinks at Erma Wine House and ended close to sunrise at the Orangutan Bunker club.
Wednesday, February 2nd — Pandas!
What a better way to cure a hangover than a trip to see the pandas? Lunchtime caught us slowly walking around the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, home to the rare and endangered species of giant pandas. I learned that the giant pandas are only found in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces and that in total there are fewer than 2,000 left, of which 70% within Sichuan Province. The day ended with a beautiful group dinner in a local restaurant, chosen by our Chengdu-born friend Cece.
Thursday, February 3rd — largest Buddha(s) in the world
At 9am we took the train south to Leshan, a 3 million-people city about an hour away from the capital. What I expected to be a small suburban town turned out to be a developing city with wide roads and tall skyscrapers.
We made the daytrip in order to see the Leshan Giant Buddha, the largest stone-carved buddha in the world, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. What we stumbled upon first was actually the Oriental Buddha Park, a privately run cultural theme park, featuring thousands of reproductions of Buddha statues and Buddhist themed carvings. Unfortunately, none of them were authentic, but rather reconstructions, but nevertheless we had a great time exploring this rather odd area.
Friday, February 4th — bye bye Chengdu ceremony
We woke up with a goal in mind — to see a Sichuan opera play. So, we went to another famous pedestrian area Kuan-Zhai Alley and saw a performance of selected Sichuan Opera acts for only 38kuai (~$5). After getting another covid-19 test, we explored another bar area in Chengdu and watched the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
Saturday, February 5th — most populous city in the world
Chongqing, considered by some the most populous city in the world with over 31million residents was a complete surprise of the itinerary. Taking the high speed train 高铁 from Chengdu made the journey to the city located on the Yangtze River very smooth and quick. We took the subway from Rezen Select hotel to Hongya Caves and had delicious street food in the hidden alleways overseeing the river. The narrow streets, the hills and the neverending skyscrapers reminded me of my beloved Hong Kong. All 10 of us gathered together for a fun group dinner of traditional food and later went for drinks at a friend’s bar.
Sunday, February 6th — slowing the rotation of the Earth
I woke up wanting more time in Chongqing. It was an error to only give the city 48h but nevertheless, we packed and hit the road early in the morning starting with a covid-19 test at the neighborhood hospital. We knew we would need a new one for our train that evening.
I then had a lovely breakfast with my friend Lulu over some delicious local noodles and coffee at Torrace coffee shop. We met up with the group at the Three Gorges museum in Chongqing’s People’s Square where we learned about the largest infrastructure project in history. The Three Gorges Dam was built on the Yangze River over the course of many years caused controversy because it caused the displacement of at least 1.3 million people. Moreover, NASA calculated that the dam slows the rotation of the earth by 0.06 microseconds.
From there, we took a cab across town to Ciqikou Old town where we got lost on the streets full of snacks and hidden markets. The evening had me, Luke and Michael headed towards the train station, ready to embark on a hard sleeper train to Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.
Chapter 3: Xi’an — Xiamen — Shanghai
Monday, February 7th — following the silk road
The 11-hour journey took us from the south to the center of China and the city that was once the beginning of ‘the silk road’. After a rough night sleeping on the hard, tiny beds in the shared compartments of the train, I woke up in a freshly snowed Xi’an with Luke and Michael. Only issue was Michael was stopped for further questioning by security as soon as we stepped off the train and tried to enter the city. Because his QR health code had an asterisk (indicating he had traveled to Beijing in the last 14 days) we were not sure he was going to be allowed in. While Michael was being questioned, we made a snowman outside the station in front of the Reconstructed Danfeng Gate in Daming Palace. Our deed didn’t go unnoticed and an older couple came to take pictures of it and asked us to take some pictures with them. That’s how Luke and I learned that the Xi’an accent is impossible for us to understand and that they couldn’t understand our Beijing accent either.
Once the crisis was averted and Michael released, we checked in at Lemon Hotel and hit the road to see the Bell and Drum towers. We then wandered around the Muslim quarter neighborhood, and had what I consider to be the best meat I’ve tasted in China. Xi’an has a large Muslim community and seven mosques in Xi’an, the best known being the Great Mosque that was unfortunately closed for visitation.
Tuesday, February 8th — lockdown memories
Xi’an had a gloomy atmosphere with quite a few stores closed and stricter COVID-19 measures. The city witnessed the largest COVID-19 community outbreak since the initial months of the pandemic hit China. From 23 December 2021, the city was put into strict lockdown after local authorities reported more than 250 cases of the Delta variant. Restrictions of Xi’an were only lifted on January 24th, about two weeks before we arrived but the effects were still present. More about China’s strictest lockdown in Xi’an here.
We started our day navigating yet another public hospital in search of a COVID-19 test. We then took the day to explore around the center and stopped in a bookstore to work for a while before biking for 15km on the Ancient city wall — the best preserved ancient wall in China (even better than the Great Wall). Walking around our neighborhood, we spotted a hole-in-the-wall traditional Xi’an dinner spot where we had frog, chicken and other local delicacies before the cold wore us out and we headed back to our hotel.
Wednesday, February 9th — wonder of the world
Wednesday we were on a mission — to be the first people at the Terracota Army museum at opening at 8.30AM. This meant leaving the hotel around 7.30AM and taking a cab 42 kilometers (26 miles) east of Xi’an. We not only made it there first, but we were the ONLY tourists there. But why is the Terracota Army one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world? The mystery, legend and grandor of the place can hardly be captured in words:
- the construction of the tomb began when the Emperor took power at the age of 13.
- As part of the complex, more than 700,000 laborers constructed a life-size terra cotta army and tomb complex. The army took an estimated 40 years to finish.
- The clay soldiers remained untouched for more than 2000 years, until 1974, when they were discovered by Chinese farmers digging a well.
- Experts estimate there are more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses. Every soldier is unique, no two are alike and each has unique and realistic features.
- The greatest mystery is yet to be revealed: the Emperor’s tomb, which has yet to be opened due to concerns about preservation.
After 3 hours of walking around the excavated portion of the museum and bombarding our tourguide, Emily, with questions, we had a quick dinner in the area and made the trek back to the city. We spent the next few hours studying Chinese and catching up on work before our flight. I made a risky decision to get a haircut at a corner store using my basic Chinese skills and it turned out pretty good! On the plane I listened to “Obiceiul Pamantului” — a Romanian podcast from DOR that presents an issue dear to my heart — the challenges of the Roma people, the largest minory population in Europe. Best podcast I’ve ever listened to.
Around 1AM we reached Chunguang Hotel in Xiamen happy to be taking off my big puffer jacket for the first time on the trip.
Thursday , February 10th — leaving winter behind
Woke up in Xiamen with a view of the sea and wandered the streets until I found 21 Gram coffeeshop. I caught up with my friend Karthik while we explored Zhongshan Road Walking Street in the morning and met up with the others to get a COVID-19 test at the local hospital. For the first time on this trip we had to wait over an hour in line to get the test, but at least it was free. The day flew by and we found ourselves having dinner in Xiamen’s fish market. I had lobster for the first time and picked the fish I wanted to eat from an acquarium while it was still alive. The night took us to a beautiful rooftop bar where we watched the lights of the city and the port while enjoying a drink and for a second I forgot I was in China.
Friday, February 11th — more seafood
After 9AM Chinese tutoring class we took the ferry to the famous Gulangyu island. After a few mishaps trying to find the correct ferry terminal, we took the 15-minute ride across the bay and saw Xiamen’s skyline from the other side. The pedestrian-only island has an interesting history as it was colonized by 13 countries, including Great Britain, France, The Netherlands and Japan. In 2017 Gulangyu was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I understand why — the windy streets were full of beautifully kept European-style buildings overseeing the bay. We met up with friends, had more seafood and walked around the beaches until dark.
Saturday, February 12th
Another day in Xiamen started with some prepping for the Chinese exam in the morning given I only had 5 days left and too many chapters I had not touched. We were all dispersing that evening or early the next day so I had a final get-together lunch with Luke, Karthik, Michael, Ryan and Julius over sushi. I really enjoyed the food at the time, but didn’t know how much the lunch was going to alter my plans.
After lunch I remember biking to the beach, deciding it was too windy for me to enjoy reading and proceeding to explore the Xiamen University area before settling outside a coffee shop.
Around 5pm, I headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner. I was chatting with Karthik in his room when we both started feeling off and decided to skip the group dinner. The stomach ache and nausea was getting worse and so I went to my room to attempt sleeping it off. At 8pm Luke, Karthik and I texted each other about the symphtoms, realizing that we had a severe case of food poisoning and a long night ahead of us.
Sunday, February 13th
By the early hours of the morning we were so weak and dehydrated that I was genuinely concerned and decided to go to the hospital with Luke, meanwhile Karthik packed and took his plane back to Beijing. Because we were feverish and we had a flight scheduled for that evening, we first had to get a COVID-19 test. The 10 minute walk to the hospital probably took us 30 minutes because we had to stop often and sit down. At this point we couldn’t talk to each other because we were so tired. After the test we were sent to another hospital nearby in order to see a doctor. No one spoke English, but thankfully I had just learned the Chinese vocabulary for the “I’m not feeling well” lesson (我不舒服) the day before so between my basic language skills and Google Translate I was able to explain to the doctor what had happened to us. Even more, I was able to ask for medicine and IV fluids. We spent the next 2–3 hours with a drip, sleeping on a chair. Around noon we went back to the hotel and slept until our flight at 11PM that night.
Monday, February 14th
We arrived in Shanghai depleted of energy and will to travel. We couldn’t eat and we just wanted to rest. Instead, we used our last bit of energy to take a walk around Yu Garden and the Bund in order to admire the famous skyline. We slept the rest of the day and night.
Tuesday, February 15th
The day is hazy in my memory because once again I only studied Chinese and rested. Eventhough there had been a few days since our food poisoning, I was not feeling nearly recovered. Having not eaten since Saturday certainly wasn’t helping. But nevertheless, we went and ate some delicious pies and mashed potatoes for lunch before attempting to see the Lantern Festival at Yu Garden. Overwhelmed by the crowds of people, we left and headed for an Arcade instead where we spent the next 3 hours competing against each other in Pool, Bowling, Archery, Mario Kart, Darts and Air Hockey. Final score? 4–2 for Luke.
Wednesday, February 16th
Having regained some energy, we woke up early to get COVID-19 tested at yet another local hospital before my 9AM Chinese lesson. After the early practice, we walked to the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art Edge and saw Becoming Andy Warhol, “the most comprehensive exhibition of Andy Warhol in China to date reconsiders the breadth of the legendary Pop artist’s output, including nearly 400 drawings, paintings, photographs, and films from The Andy Warhol Museum”. Quite ironic that I had to come all the way to Shanghai to see it when I lived in his homestate of Pennsylvania for 4 years.
I parted ways with Luke and walked through the park remembering my first time there in 2019; the stores were unchanged but I was perceiving things so differently now. I had come a long way, from being confused and lost to not being scared to wander around any place in China, on my own. I then took the subway from People’s Park and had a lovely lunch with Josh and Raven at Josh’s favorite restaurant: Lotus. Us girls then biked to the Propaganda Museum where we met up with Mallie and observed the collection of posters from 1911 to date.
I didn’t disclose this before, but the reason why we kept traveling even after we got sick was to be able to attend the Sleep No More interactive performance that night. We had bought tickets far in advance and planned on having this be our last experience before heading back to Beijing.
Without spoiling the mistery, “Sleep No More tells Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth through a darkly cinematic lens, offering an audience experience unlike anything else. Audiences move freely through the epic story, creating their own journeys through a film noir world”. I basically was able to explore five storeys of performances happening at the same time and follow my own plotline. It was easily the best theatrical performance I’ve ever seen and I even got a private performance from one of the actors that took my hand and led me to a separate room with just us two. It is now my goal to see the performance in New York as well and compare it with the Shanghai experience.
Thursday, February 17th
Worn out by the 27 days of travel, we returned to Beijing with an early flight. At 5PM that day I took my exam and managed to place up into a higher level of Chinese and slept for the next 3–4 days.
If you have any questions, tips or recommendations feel free to leave them in the comments below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more stories and details about my adventures, you can find me on Instagram: @cristinapogo.